I don’t know if my boss did anything after I reported a coworker’s plagiarism

A reader writes:

I work in an office where our primary role is to conduct research and write reports. A few months ago, I was working with a colleague on a report and found out that he had plagiarized large parts of one of the sections for which he was responsible. I caught this purely by accident while proofreading his section when I googled something to get more clarification and found that he had lifted entire paragraphs, verbatim, from other sources without providing proper attribution. I took this information to my boss, along with print-outs of the original sources and a copy of my coworker’s draft for comparison. My boss seemed very dismayed and disappointed in my coworker, and was very thankful to me for coming to him. He assured me he would talk to my coworker about it, though he said he wasn’t sure at that time how he was going to handle it. I figured that was fine and that he needed some time to think about it before proceeding.

I want to be clear about one thing without going into revealing detail: the plagiarism that I fortunately caught before we published the paper would absolutely not have gone unnoticed had we published it. My coworker plagiarized from some VERY well-known sources. The reputation of our entire office and my boss in particular would have been jeopardized by this.

It has now been about two months since I told my boss about the plagiarism and I still don’t know what, if anything, has been done about it. All I know is that my coworker still works here. While it’s my boss’s prerogative whether or not to fire him or just to discipline him in some other way, I know that my boss is definitely the type to avoid confrontation, and I’m really concerned he just didn’t say anything at all to him. If that’s the case, I obviously wouldn’t feel comfortable working in an environment where plagiarism is tolerated.

I understand that my boss isn’t obligated to share with me any details of how he chose to discipline my coworker, but I am wondering if it would be reasonable for me to follow up with my boss to ask whether he did *something.* Can I ask my boss what he did about the situation or is this overstepping my bounds? And if I do ask, how should I phrase it so that I don’t sound nosy about the punishment, but rather concerned about how our office treats plagiarism?

Eh, I think you probably need to trust that your boss handled it and let it go.

Unless your boss is pathologically unassertive and has a track record of not addressing serious issues, there’s pretty much no reason to assume that he didn’t talk to your coworker about it. The issue was a serious one, your boss sounded concerned when you brought it up, and it’s the kind of thing that’s generally going to be a no-brainer for a manager to address with an employee. If he didn’t, you have a huge manager problem, one that goes far beyond this particular incident.

But if you’re only worrying that he might not have addressed it because you didn’t hear anything else about it … It’s actually very normal that you didn’t hear anything else about it. Your part of this really ended once you brought it to your boss’s attention. A good manager would then go handle it directly with the employee involved, and it would be very normal not to then circle back to you to tell you how it was resolved, because that part of it isn’t really something that affects you.

As for why your coworker is still there … Plagiarism is a big deal, especially in a job where the primary work is researching and writing (and where, therefore, people should really know better). But in many offices, it’s pretty rare for someone to be fired over a single instance of bad behavior, especially if they’re otherwise doing good work. I mean, yes, if you’re caught embezzling, you’re probably going to be let go without warning — but for most other stuff, even when it’s bad, you’re more likely to get a serious talking-to and possibly a formal warning than to be fired for one instance of something. I’d assume that your boss had a very serious conversation with your coworker, is satisfied that it won’t happen again, and hopefully is watching his work a little more closely for a while.

As for whether it would be reasonable to ask your boss whether he took action … I don’t think so. It would be so odd for a manager to not take action in this situation that asking is almost insulting (by implying that maybe he didn’t), and ultimately it’s really between him and your coworker. I’d trust that it was handled and move on.

{ 153 comments… read them below }

  1. Carrie in Scotland*

    Talking of “well known sources” few years ago, a student plagiarised Beethoven in a composition assignment.

    1. Stephanie*

      Oh man, please tell me it was something really conspicuous, like the opening the the 5th Symphony.

      1. Carrie in Scotland*

        I don’t know – I came across my big boss recently and she said in passing about plagiarism, as she was documenting 3 cases when talking to me, which is how the above comment came up!

          1. Carrie in Scotland*

            It does take something, doesn’t it?

            I was in a meeting recently and plagiarism came up as they’d been a case where the student had just copied text from a source and the lecturer was like “do they not know we can google just as well as they can?” (it was the top link!)

            1. LisaS*

              No, no – they *don’t* realize their instructors can use the google machine as well (if not better!) than they can! I routinely used to get papers that were so badly plagiarised the student hadn’t even changed the fonts & turned in an essay that looked like a ransom note…

              1. A Teacher*

                Wikipedia, verbatim. Two years ago on an open essay final that she turned and handed to her friend that changed 3 words in the paper. College level course. One of the parents insisted on a meeting with me and administration. One of the APs sat in on the meeting because he wanted to hear how the mom could even justify the cheating.

                1. A Teacher*

                  In her words, “my daughter gave her friend permission to copy her assignment, so that’s not plagarism. You should check the definition.” When we discussed the college’s academic integrity policy (it is a dual credit course) she backed off a bit but said, “well Sam (not her real name) didn’t know what she was doing so you’ll just have to excuse it this once.” When I pointed out that not only did she let the friend copy her assignment, she also took it verbatim from wikipedia, the mother said “well she tried to cite it.” She did use wikipedia as a citation, I’ll give her that, but she didn’t just cite it, she copied and pasted the entire article. One sentence was moved. The mom was furious that I wasn’t more understanding and that the “0” on that portion of the final held. I told her next time it would be reported to the college and I would pursue it as much as I could.

                2. manybellsdown*

                  I once had a grown woman in her 30’s submit her part of a group paper that was a copy-pasted Wikipedia TALK PAGE. She couldn’t even be bothered to find the actual page.

              2. Artemesia*

                They think professors are stupid and they are clever. When I had 5 different high school classes,I would get students in second period govt turning in the essay that a friend in 5th period turned in. They assumed I’d never noticed, but of course I graded them all together and sorted them by quality before the final grading — so the two identical essays were apt to end up next to each other on second read. Students were astounded to get caught.

                Had college students plagiarize from the text and similar ridiculous things like that when I sat on the honor board that heard these things.

                1. Rana*

                  I think the most hilarious instance of bad judgement plagiarism I’ve heard of was an instance in which a colleague’s student plagiarized from one of my colleague’s own publications! He was starting to grade the thing, thought, “Hey, this seems familiar… wait a minute! I wrote this!”

            2. HeyNonnyNonny*

              I once had a student who had paid another student to write their paper…which was 100% plagiarized.

                1. CMart*

                  “They call me the Ghost Writer–academic dishonesty vigilante!”

                  I think that’s pretty funny, myself, and I’m almost hoping it was on purpose.

                  Like when kids would give me money to buy them cigarettes outside of a drug store, and I’d buy them candy with that money instead.

                2. Merry and Bright*

                  Agree, M-C. I once let a school classmate copy my hard researched chemistry essay word for word. Why oh why? She got an A and I got C+. Never again.

                3. Ž*

                  When I was at uni there was a kid who pleaded with me and begged me and whined and harrassed me to write his paper on the yellow wallpaper. and i hated the yellow wallpaper. always have. and i’d not only had to write an essay on it in high school, i had to write one in uni as well. and then this kid wanted me to write his! so i plagiarised it because i had my own damn essays to write and it was already plagiarism since he wasn’t the one writing it.

                  his teacher complained and he complained to me so i just reordered the paragraphs a bit (but left it 100% plagiarised) and gave it back to him and he stopped complaining to me after that.

                1. Arjay*

                  Oh when you spend good money on a, um, ghost writer, only to find out this is the shoddy work they do!

            3. Jen RO*

              I am a technical writer and, as part of the test we gave candidates, we had them write a short document explaining a concept or object (for example, the game of chess or a dictionary). We were hiring complete newcomers and we just wanted to see if they knew English (I’m not in an English-speaking country) and if they could write a page that made sense.

              It was depressing how many plagiarized documents we got. One of them was from chess.com even! After the first incident, we simply started googling every time a test looked too good to be true…

    2. FGD 135 Wing attack Plan R*

      I wonder what determines plagiarism in music? It’s not uncommon for musicians and composers to borrow from each other, sometimes as a form of “homage”, other times they just want to make an “allusion” to another piece – for instance, shrieks violins ala Hitchcock’s Psycho.

      Also, one can do fun things with music like turn one or more staffs upside down. You keep the rhythm but change the notes. Or reverse the order so you play from the end to the beginning. Or play each page of the score from right to left – same notes, different rhythm. Actually, there are so many tricks like this that I have to wonder why anyone would plagiarize another musician note-for-note.

      1. Michele*

        I don’t know what it takes for something to be considered plagarism in music, and I have such a lousy ear that I would have a hard time telling if I heard it. But do you remember when John Fogerty was sued by his record company for copyright infringement on a song he wrote? He was basically sued for plagarizing himself.

        1. Koko*

          If you’re Vanilla Ice, you just pay off Queen and the crime of plagiarism becomes the artistic tradition of sampling.

          1. Jillociraptor*

            Is there a greater disappointment in the world than when you’re expecting Under Pressure and you get Ice Ice Baby?

            1. Stephanie*

              OMG, I know! I was at the gym and heard the intro beat and was excited until I heard “Yo, VIP! Let’s kick it!”

        1. Ann Furthermore*

          I read about that yesterday. I have heard the Sam Smith song, and I am a huge Tom Petty fan, and I love the song “I Won’t Back Down.” But before I read about that yesterday, the similarity had not registered with me. Then when I thought about it, I can’t believe I had not noticed it before.

      2. Gandalf the Nude*

        That reminds me of a joke:

        A music student procrastinates his composition final and heads to the library to look for inspiration. He finds an archive of former students’ composition finals. Lo and behold, there’s his professor’s, an alumna’s, old final. The student has a brilliant idea: “I’ll just reverse the teacher’s old final and call it a day! They’ll never know!” A few days after he turns it in, the teacher sends him an email that says: “Why did you turn in Beethoven’s Fifth?”

    3. Cath in Canada*

      This reminded me of when my friend played her new composition for us in a high-school music class, and it was note-for-note the intro to “I could have danced all night”. She was mortified when we all started singing along. She swore she’d never heard the song before, which is certainly possible – her parents are immigrants and didn’t have any Western music in the house at all, and my friends and I were all listening to crappy 80s pop music at the time. I suppose there are only so many possible sequences of notes out there!

          1. Stephanie*

            As a fellow cellist, I can empathize. I f’ing hate Pachelbel’s Canon. My old teacher dreaded wedding season because everyone wanted her quartet to play that.

            1. MJ (Aotearoa/New Zealand)*

              Hubby kept threatening to switch out our processional music with Pachelbel before I got to the venue. He was told in no uncertain terms I would turn around and walk out again :P

            2. Noelle*

              As a pianist, this is how I feel about Clair de Lune and the Moonlight Sonata. As an accompanist for cellists, I seriously hate Saint-Saens’ “Swan.”

    4. jordanjay29*

      By “plagiarism” do you mean like A Fifth of Beethoven? Or do you mean they submitted Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with their own title and name attached?

      Beethoven is in the public domain. Which means you can actually use his music for your own compositions without attribution. You probably still SHOULD credit him, though, if it’s for a school or professional composition. But unless someone is just copying his entire piece verbatim, I don’t see how it would be plagiarism.

      1. Wehaf*

        Plagiarism is passing someone else’s work off as one’s own; copyright issues are completely separate. It is legal to use works on the public domain, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to pretend they are yours (for example, in an assignment).

        1. jordanjay29*

          That’s true, but it certainly depends on the nature of the assignment. For a research project, for example, one can use quotes and paraphrase another author with attribution, but doing so without (or copying text word for word) is plagiarism. In music composition, I imagine things a bit different, but that it is possible to use phrasing or similar styles to famous composers without plagiarizing. After all, what is truly original anymore?

          I honestly find that school standards for plagiarism to be quite high. There should be a difference between outright plagiarism and being able to avoid reinventing the wheel (for example, in music, coding, and other creative ventures). No one gets annoyed by math students using formulas that others have discovered, but things sure get hairy when someone deigns to use a similar phrase in a research project (and while the number of ways to say a particular statement might be many and varied, it’s inevitable that some people are going to say something the same way without intending to sound alike).

          1. Wehaf*

            That’s a whole different set of issues, though – asking where the line is for plagiarism, depending on context and genre, is not really related to the question of whether it is possible to plagiarize something in the public domain, which is what I was addressing in my comment.

        2. CandOr*

          Absolutely. I’m an editor, and it astonishes me how often I must explain this distinction to midcareer (and even higher-level) professionals. The fact that a work is in the public domain does not mean you don’t have to cite your reuse of the work in part or in whole; it means simply that you don’t need anyone’s permission to reuse or copy it.

    5. Rat Racer*

      It sounds like this student actually lifted the score note for note, but your story does remind me of a composition assignment I had in college. We were supposed to write a piece in the style of Chopin and then play it for the class. When my piece concluded a guy in the front row started singing “Silver Bells.” I totally failed to realize that I’d plagiarized a Christmas Carroll. Except I guess it wasn’t exactly plagiarism since it was “Silver Bells” in the style of Chopin…

      1. patty*

        Once in high school, the assignment was to write a poem. I wrote part of the lyrics to a song – Last Kiss . The teacher was in tears when I read it and the other students tried very hard, without success, to keep from laughing. I’m still amazed I got away with it. Yeah, I didn’t take high school too seriously.

    6. Paul*

      Snopes has a longer version of this – a music student with the assignment to “compose a symphony”(??!!) went to the university library, found a past submission and reversed it. His professor came to him after the piece was graded, to ask him why he handed in “Moonlight Sonata.” Almost certainly false, unfortunately.

  2. Stephanie*

    OP, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. You did all you could by reporting it to your boss. Your coworker could have started a PIP (or other disciplinary action), gotten a demotion or pay cut, been denied an opportunity for training or travel, or any other number of disciplinary actions that are not immediately apparent.

    I’d say as well it’s a Good Thing that your boss isn’t blabbing about your coworker’s disciplinary problems. I’d hate it if my coworkers knew I was on a PIP (or something similar) and my boss told them).

    1. A Non*

      I’ve worked in situations where HR people were gossips – as enticing as it is to know what’s going on with a coworker, it’s actually very uncomfortable. I’d prefer an overly tight-lipped environment where discipline is concerned.

    2. some1*

      And let’s not forget the possibility that the LW is incorrect and the coworker didn’t actually plagiarize (like someone set her up to look like she plagiarized and the investigation uncovered that) — however minuscule that possibility is.

      I have had this happen to me before — got reported by a coworker for something that looked like I commited a serious offense in their eyes, but if my coworker had the info that I do they would know I actually didn’t do anything wrong.

      1. Cat*

        Ok but in that case don’t you absolutely tell the coworker that so they don’t think that you plagiarizes when you didn’t?

  3. Ann O'Nemity*

    Has the OP noticed any other instances of plagiarism? Especially on published pieces? Is the plagiarism a widespread issue that could potentially affect the org’s reputation? Are there processes in place to avoid plagiarism?

    If I were in the OP’s shoes, I’d be asking these broader questions instead of focusing so much on whether or not one employee received appropriate disciplinary action. Not hearing about the disciplinary action doesn’t necessarily indicate that the org is lax on plagiarism, but the broader situation probably does deserve some follow-up attention.

    1. OP*

      I haven’t had a chance to go back and review his earlier work for plagiarism and I’m not sure that’s how my boss would want me to be using my time anyway. That said, I’m certainly going to be vigilant on anything else I work on with this person.

      You make a good point about processes regarding plagiarism. I think all staff could probably benefit from a little refresher course on how to properly attribute work, paraphrasing versus direct quotations, etc. That might be something I could bring to my boss as a suggestion. Thanks!

      1. MissDisplaced*

        It’s always good to have a review session regarding what is/is not plagiarism (intentional and non-intentional) and how to avoid it and use of proper citations.
        That being said, is it possible the person gave you their notes or something and not an actual document that was ready for review? It’s happened to me at school. I had a rough draft I attached and emailed by mistake, and it contained some non-cited, obviously pasted-in copy, and my comments in the review pane. Luckily, the professor understood that it looked like a simple mistake and not intent of plagiarism and asked me if this is what I really wanted to submit!

        I assume you thought about though before you went to your boss with the evidence though. It’s usually pretty easy to spot if they had just missed a citation by mistake.

  4. just laura*

    I’m a writer and understand your concerns. Perhaps it would help if you offered/suggested to create a “best practices” type of document that indicates your company’s citation rules? Kind of a style guide for your research?

    Not sure of your industry, but would that allow you to open up the convo again without it being about Mr. Plagiarist?

  5. Sidra*

    I actually question why discipline is so utterly private. I understand you don’t want to humiliate the employee, but I think it’s demoralizing for good employees to see bad behavior continue, seemingly unchecked. Perhaps this is because I’ve had a few “pathologically passive” bosses in my time.

    I think in something as severe as this, if I were the manager I would take the reporting employee aside at some point and say, “I appreciate you bringing this to me, and that you are as concerned as I am about avoiding plagiarism. I am handling the issue with [the perpetrator], and wanted you to know I am taking this matter seriously.”

    1. Katie the Fed*

      But you’re assuming that the bad behavior has continued. In this case it might have been a one-time thing and it’s been corrected.

      But yes I do think a vague assurance that you’re handling it might be good.

      As for why bosses don’t tell everyone – if you think of the purpose of disclipinary action to correct the behavior and get the employee doing good work again (or start), then it doesn’t serve that purpose to highlight it to the team.

      1. Cat*

        I think there’s another purpose too, though, which is fostering an environment in which good behavior is rewarded and problem behavior isn’t and where employees know that’s what’s going to happen. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one managers have to be conscious of.

      2. Sidra*

        I think with something as serious as plagiarism, it is important to let staff know that you do take it seriously – and part of that is letting the team know that you are addressing it when it occurs. Discipline serves the purpose of correcting behavior, but also of showing the rest of the organization what boundaries and expectations you have. I think you can serve both without humiliating anyone, and honestly, I think people are more inclined to improve when they stop thinking their behavior doesn’t affect their colleagues.

    2. Jillociraptor*

      I agree with you. Of course there are situations where this won’t make sense, but by and large I think it’s really valuable to create an organizational culture where feedback is visibly taken seriously. When one team member’s mistakes make a serious impact on the rest of the team, morale can take a nosedive if it seems like the manager doesn’t care. I don’t mean you need to lock up employees who make minor errors in the stocks with their crimes on posterboard or anything, but there’s no reason you can’t say to affected employees, “I know this issue is continuing to affect you, and I’m working with Jane on it until it’s resolved.”

      1. Mimmy*

        This, so much this!! I remember a previous job where I approached my manager about someone’s frequent absences; I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he seemed so ready with a pat answer, which I felt didn’t take my concerns seriously. I think this person’s absences turned out to be for legit reasons, which would’ve been nice to know up front. No, I don’t need to hear the exact details of this person’s situation, but I am a strong believer in transparency.

        /end semi-unrelevant rant

      2. Sidra*

        Absolutely. I am currently dealing with a situation where my boss gives me lots of positive feedback, but I still have mixed feelings about things overall because I don’t see some of my colleagues being held to a high standard on things that affect the entire team.

    3. ThursdaysGeek*

      A friend is in serious trouble at work right now. She had co-workers cheating the company and reported that to her manager. It affects her, since the calls they don’t take have to be picked up by someone. He said he would take care of it. But while the cheating has gone down some, it’s mostly just moving around, and the worst offender, who was avoiding 100% of his calls, is now only avoiding about 80% of his calls. Employees at a lower level would have immediately be let go for such behavior. So she went over her managers head and complained to his manager.

      Now she is expecting to be let go. They tried to get her to resign yesterday, saying that losing faith in your manager is a serious offense. And here is an honest question: why is cheating the company not a worse offense? And doesn’t it make sense to lose faith in management who doesn’t consider cheating a worse offense?

      I understand from reading this blog that 1) we shouldn’t complain about things that really don’t affect us and 2) we often won’t get to see the changes that are brought about from a complaint. She obviously followed up in the wrong way. But she has a valid point: why work harder than others, when it appears that nothing is happening to others who are not working much at all? Especially when you’re working harder directly because others are not working much at all. It seems that there does need to be SOME visibility.

      1. Sidra*

        Wow, talk about killing the messenger!

        Honestly, it sounds like a company where they aren’t interested in performance and your friend ought to go somewhere that values work ethic and leave those goons to their own devices.

    4. Koko*

      Over a sufficient time horizon, you either see your coworker’s work improve, or you see them resign or be let go. That’s how you know correction (I prefer this term to discipline, since in many cases what is being corrected isn’t pathological or willful disregard for appropriate action, but simply carelessness or errors made in good faith) has taken place. As long as the corrections are in fact taking place, there’s no need for them to be public. The results of the corrections are what will be public.

      1. Sidra*

        If the company actually fires people (instead of just giving them a reduction in responsibility, pay, etc.), that is true. However, many people (myself included) have worked in cultures where people don’t get fired for poor performance and management prefers to wait until they resign. This is no way to improve morale among what high performers you might have.

    5. Jen RO*

      I agree. During a particularly bad time with a former coworker, several higher performers were on the verge of quitting because we (thought we) saw our boss not doing anything to address the coworker’s slacking and attitude problems. Months later, after the coworker in question had been laid off, we found out that he was actually on a PIP… started when we thought the boss had no clue.

      I am not sure how my boss could have handled it better – he did tell us he was addressing the problems, we just didn’t see any results – but I am definitely telling all my reports if and when I am dealing with an issue. I think keeping people in the dark is a very good way of driving them away from the company.

      1. MissDisplaced*

        Yeah, I mean good companies also do give people a chance to correct their behavior or habits and reform… and that can take time. Some companies even have a sort of “three strike” type of rule, depending on the nature of the problems. To those watching, it often seems like nothing is happening or being done.

        1. Jen RO*

          And in a country where there is no “at will” employment and the law itself is in the favor of the employee… I have to say, it’s nice to know that my boss can’t fire me because he woke up grumpy today, but it is horrible to have to work alongside someone who is simply not making an effort and yet to know that he is being paid the same as you.

          (The law does not offer exact figures, but by the interpretation our HR/Legal department it’s impossible to fire someone without at least 2 consecutive PIPs, each lasting a few months. The first PIP is supposed to outline all the issues, and the second PIP is supposed to give the employee a second chance to fix the things she/he could not fix in the first PIP.)

      2. Sidra*

        This. Lots of high performers aren’t going to wait months upon months for someone to finally be canned or resign, they have better options out there. By assuring your high performers that they are not being taken for granted, you can better retain them. This can be done without humiliating the poor performer either, if handled gracefully and with sufficiently vague language.

    6. Picky commentor*

      People make mistakes, and a good boss will be discreet with discipline to do their best to ensure this employee is not made the centre of the gossip vine, and can move on and perform better. I’m hoping that this employee has rectified their behavior and OP is just curious as to what happened. As long as the behavior stops, I would take it as a good sign your manager has taken action, the details of which you don’t need to be privy to, nor does the manager really owe you a follow up. If the behavior continues, I agree it’s reasonable to ask the manager ‘So this stuff is still going on. Were my concerns taken seriously?’

    7. Nobody*

      I agree, Sidra, and on the flip side, if it appears that nothing is being done to address bad behavior, other people might think they can get away with doing the same thing and not get disciplined.

      Also, there is a big difference between poor performance and willful misconduct. In the case of poor performance, it’s probably not necessary for everyone to know the details of how the boss is handling Jane’s missed deadlines or Bob’s accounting errors, and the goal should be improving their performance. This plagiarism incident, however, was a case of pretty serious misconduct, and I don’t see why the boss shouldn’t make it known that it is being taken seriously and that there are negative consequences for it.

      I find it hard to believe that this guy just woke up one day and decided to plagiarize his next paper. He has probably been doing it for a while, perhaps just a sentence here and there at first, but getting more bold as he continued to get away with it.

      1. Sidra*

        Yep, I know that at least a few people in my last job were decent when they started, but quickly lost interest in being excellent at the job because they looked around and saw that excellence wasn’t normal, or expected.

        I also think that with something like plagiarism, the appropriate response is immediate firing. You can’t let people think that is OK in any amount at any time, because you bet that guy was doing it way before anyone caught on!

  6. Cat*

    So from a best practices standpoint, am I the only one who thinks it would be a good idea for the boss to say something like “I wanted to thank you again for bringing that to my attention and to assure you that we understand the seriousness of the situation and are addressing it”? I understand confidentiality as a general matter, but this is serious enough–and could potentially affect the reputation of everyone at the company–so it seems like a good idea for the boss to make sure the employee who is aware of the situation understands that it is being treated with appropriate gravity.

    1. fposte*

      I wouldn’t go back to the OP a second time to say that, though. I’d say it when it was brought to me and consider that sufficient.

      1. Cat*

        That makes sense to me. In this case, though, saying “I need some time to think about how to deal with this” doesn’t seem to quite get you there to me . . . I would think a definitive statement would be better.

        1. esra*

          I think at that point it just isn’t your business anymore. If the boss needs more info, they’ll follow up with you.

          1. Cat*

            Except that plagiarism in written product with your name on it can potentially have huge repercussions for you whether you were responsible for the wrongdoing or not, so I think the coworker is owed something from that perspective too.

            1. Picky commentor*

              It wasn’t published (I assume) and if it doesn’t happen again, why does it matter? They stopped, probably won’t happen again, that’s all I would care about if I was the OP and the manager. How it was stopped and what was said isn’t really necessary to disclose. As a manager, I would expect my employees to take me at my word the first time, not have to worry about reinforcing my view to convince them I’m actually doing something. Actions speak louder than words; get the behavior to stop.

              1. Cat*

                The problem is that plagiarism in this context is a fundamental integrity issue and it’s also not always super easy to catch. I think that’s the kind of situation where some more assurance is necessary that it’s not going to happen again because if it does, the consequences are potentially pretty disastrous.

              2. ThursdaysGeek*

                How do you know it stopped? Unless you’re actually checking, or your manager assures you that it has been handled, you don’t know.

                That’s why clear communication can be so valuable.

            2. esra*

              I think those are two issues though. You could reasonably ask about going through past documents and future protocol, but not specifically what was done to this guy.

    2. SJP*

      I tend to agree with that..
      If I was the OP’s manager I’d want to again reassure that person that what they did was 100% correct, thank them for it and encourage them to come forward with anything else, and let them know it’s in hand.
      By sort of leaving the OP hanging it’s not giving the best vibe as it seemingly looks like nothing is going on and some people would see that as nothing is happening and not bother reporting things in future

      I definitely see both sides of the telling people of the discipline and not telling, but I think a reassurance in this instance (not necessarily telling OP what they had done to discipline the colleague but a we’ve had a meeting/conversation with Bob and he shouldn’t be doing this again) just letting her know it’s a big deal and not gone unpunished

    3. Kay*

      But at the time the coworker came to the boss, he was dismayed, thanked her for coming to speak to him, and said he would talk to the coworker. I would take the boss at his word. Why wouldn’t he talk to the coworker?

        1. fposte*

          To me this goes back to the “I’m not going into detail with the person not on the receiving end,” though. I *would* talk to the co-worker, and I *would* think about it. That doesn’t mean it’s not getting dealt with severely, though.

          1. Cat*

            So I guess this is the heart of the disagreement – to me, it seems appropriate to say something more definitive to the person who noticed the problem, especially if you, like the boss in question, are generally understated enough that your employees don’t already know you’re going to be taking appropriate action as a matter of course.

            1. fposte*

              Yeah, I don’t know if I’d say *only* those things, either. But I think they’re reasonable things to say that don’t flag a response as avoidant or stalling.

        2. EarlGrey*

          If I were the OP, I’d want a bit more detail the next time I’m doing similar work (collaborating on a report with the plagiarist, editing their work, etc). Like, “Boss, I see I’m assigned to another report with Coworker, and I wanted to see where we stood after the plagiarism incident. Is this something I need to be especially looking out for as we’re editing?”

          Asking that might come across as “hey boss, I suspect you never did anything about this and are pushing managing the issue off on me!” But I think there’s some difference between “I want to know what happened” and “I need to know how this affects [specific work.]”

          1. SJP*

            Exactly, i’m with Cat and EarlGrey on this. When it’s something this big of a deal I think that person who more than likely has to work with Mr. Plagiarism again would want clarification that some sort of discipline happened and what the boss would want me checking for again in the future

  7. Episkey*

    Well, I agree you can’t really say anything to your boss, but (and I admit I’m probably a little jaded) I don’t exactly have Alison’s level of confidence that it “would be so odd for a manager to not take action in this situation.” I suppose I’ve had my share of pathologically unassertive bosses.

    1. Helka*

      Though based on what the OP said, it’s this boss’s behind in particular that’s on the line if plagiarized work makes it out to publication; that can inspire some normally unassertive people to take action.

  8. J.*

    What ended up happening with the report? Did your coworker submit a new piece to replace the plagarized section? Did the report just move forward without that section? I feel like however wrapping up that report was handled is the best indicator for how your manager handled the issue with your co-worker.

    1. manybellsdown*

      See that’s what I wonder. You’d know for sure if the boss addressed it if the paper was published with the plagiarized bits still in it! And at that point it seems like it could damage OP’s reputation, unless s/he immediately retracted authorship of the piece.

    2. OP*

      Oh, the report. We were on an extremely tight deadline so I ended up rewriting his sections, submitting it to my boss for review, and then sitting down with him to discuss the plagiarism I’d found. So basically at the point I talked to him, he knew I’d already handled it as far as the report was concerned.

      I know my coworker should have been the one to have to rewrite it since he was the one who plagiarized, but honestly, we were on such a tight deadline and at that point I wouldn’t have trusted anything he’d written. Plus, he’s just a notoriously slow writer (baffling considering he was mostly copying and pasting, but still) so I decided to just handle it myself and then talk to my boss about it after.

  9. Snarkus Aurelius*

    My ex was a journalist, and he plagiarised…from me!!! I turned him in to his freelance editor, and the editor was visibly upset. To this day, the editor never told me what happened. A quick check of the publication reveals my ex got suspended for a year. Or rather nothing from him got published for a year.

    Big whoop, I say, but like AAM said, some of these offenses aren’t seen as a big deal. Its not right, but it’s true.

    Your boss could say something noncommittal to you though. I hate feeling like something I said went into a black hole.

  10. Katie the Fed*

    My team has no idea that I basically forced someone out last year. They think he quit, which he technically did, but it was under duress. What they don’t know is that I had been working through the disciplinary process on two issues, one of which was so severe that he was facing an unpaid suspension.

    Ultimately he left, which was best for everyone. The screw-around employee was gone, the team got to farewell him and he got to save face. I do kind of wish I could tell them what he did and how I handled it, but that wouldn’t be right. I find a lot of being a manager is resisting the urge to gloat.

    1. AMG*

      I don’t like that people get to save face. If you are going through the disciplinary process, it’s ok for people to know that so that they understand, like the OP here wants, that corrective action for inappropriate behavior is being taken.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Precisely!! Why do you allow one person to save face when he’s done everything to destroy morale, productivity, and trust.

        Not saying the employee here was like that, but theres a predisposal to making life easy for employees who don’t do anything to deserve it.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          He was actually a very likeable person. Just shady as hell. I don’t really know how many other people noticed his, um, loose adherence to rules, regulations and policies (things we take kind of seriously around here).

        2. Joey*

          Because people deserve to be treated with dignity even when they’ve effed up bad. It’s taking the high road.

          For example it would be easy to justify having the cops arrest anyone who you think has stolen anything of value from the company, but losing your job is usually enough punishment.

      2. Zillah*

        But in terms of what’s actually going to get you the best results, allowing bad performers to save face is useful. Humiliating people is a pretty surefire way to harm morale among your employees, even the ones who are performing well and resenting their coworker who isn’t, and it’s also going to encourage anyone who’s inclined toward legal suits (or even violence!) to go after you after their termination.

      3. some1*

        I’m not getting an indication from Katie’s post that her team saw the guy as a screw-up and wanted him gone, though. They threw him a good-bye party, after all.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          He was well-liked. I think most people recognized that he wasn’t exactly reliable, but nobody every came to me and said “you know, Mr. Bojangles only works a 6-hour day.”

      4. Ed*

        I think it depends on the circumstances and the person. I was once asked to resign and they gave me some severance pay and handled it very discreetly. I didn’t do anything black and white like theft but I was certainly guilty of bad behavior and ignored any requests to change it. I really appreciated the way it was handled and have since changed my ways and am a model employee. Getting my next job was a little tricky because nobody believes you resigned voluntarily during a recession but that job is far enough behind me that it’s a non-issue now. But I was very well-liked and did good work other than being a jackass to my boss.

      5. Mike C.*

        People who are publicly humiliated and cornered often do rash and unreasonable things. At some point, you’re also making it more difficult for them to make the right choices or otherwise turn themselves around.

        1. Colette*

          And it’s much easier to tell yourself “my boss had it in for me” if your boss shares disciplinary information with the world.

    2. ThursdaysGeek*

      On the other hand, if I’m peripherally recognizing bad behavior, it’s nice to know that I have a boss that will handle it. That’s not gloating. Now that it’s in the past, it could be used as an example of what discipline might look like, without naming names or giving so many details that people will figure it out. Because otherwise, if I did know about at least some of the bad behavior, it looks to me like there are no consequences from my manager.

      It’s one thing to know that a problem employee* is gone. It’s another to know I have a manager who is willing to deal with a problem employee.

      *Not exactly applicable in this case, if the problems were only visible to the manager.

      1. Marcy*

        I agree with this. I had to let someone go last year. 2 of his coworkers came to me separately with complaints about his work (or refusal to do any) and his attitude. It takes time to go through the PIP process and to gather documentation. One of the 2 coworkers told me that she loved her job but could no longer work in that environment with a coworker being so rude to her and she was going to start looking for a new job. I met with both of employees that had complained and told them I was on it and that I was working with HR to deal with it. Had I not done that, I could have lost both of my good employees AND would still have had to let the jerky one go. They appreciated that they weren’t complaining to thin air and that they didn’t have to sit and wonder for the length of the PIP if anything was going to be done or they should be updating their resumes.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          It’s good that you had an environment where those good employees felt safe telling you that, rather than just quietly starting their job search.

  11. AndersonDarling*

    The last time I reported something, the manager involved let me know that a meeting was set to discuss the issue. That closed the loop for me. I don’t need to know what action was taken, or if anyone got in trouble, I just want to know that it was taken seriously and something was done.
    I would feel uncomfortable if I reported an ethical issue and I couldn’t ask if it was addressed. I guess it depends on the environment.

    1. Cat*

      Ah hah, I think you put your finger on what’s bothering me here – the fact that this is an ethical issue rather than merely a performance one. I guess I think that does involve a heightened standard.

      1. Cat*

        (And I guess I should say, I’m coming at this from the perspective of a lawyer – I have my own independent obligations to clients and could be subject to disciplinary action from the state bar on my own account, so I, too, would be uncomfortable if I couldn’t be fairly certain that ethical issues were being dealt with in a manner that meant the firm as a whole was in compliance with its obligations.)

  12. Sam*

    I agree that it is comforting to other employees to hear messages like “we understand the seriousness of the situation and it is being addressed” and when it can end there, I think that’s best. Some problems can occur when additional questions come up, or employees need to know exactly how it’s being addressed, or why Betty isn’t fired yet, or is Ralph on a PIP, etc. Beyond the obvious reasons of privacy and confidentiality, I don’t want to open up to liability if Ralph gets a formal warning, but Betty goes on a PIP, which leads to termination, for what looks (to Betty) like the same offense, but really, Ralph’s was minor or accidental, but because employees have SOME information they think they have ALL of the information and all of a sudden we’re being sued.
    In one example at my company, an employee noticed a co-worker doing something unethical, brought it to the attention of her manager, who thanked her and told her he would address it. She didn’t know that the co-worker was already on a PIP for this behavior and we were going through the termination process, and the other employee was terminated the next week. On one hand, the reporting employee probably thinks she got her co-worker fired, which is either empowering or horrifying, depending on your personality and the seriousness of the offense. On the other hand, the manager couldn’t really say “Yeah, we already know, he’s probably getting fired for it, we’re just finishing up the paperwork. Don’t say anything, though” But this employee had been doing this over and over, and if another employee does it just once and never does it again, they wouldn’t be fired, but the reporting employee might believe, because she reported the one instance she saw, and she observed the co-worker being terminated a week later, that a single offense leads to termination.

  13. OP*

    Thanks, Alison. I think you’re right that my boss probably spoke to my coworker and I agree that it’s none of my business how he chooses to discipline staff. I think I was just really frustrated with my coworker for doing this and feeling like he somehow “got away with it” just because he wasn’t fired, which I realize is unfair.

    I don’t think my boss is pathologically unassertive, but I have seen unassertive tendencies in his management style. Basically he’s the type who will respond to an issue with one person by creating a new Office Policy for all staff.

    PS – lots of good comments here – I’ll try to respond to as many of them as I can!

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      Which reminds me of FormerJob! One example: someone was walking off with laptops occasionally, and from what I heard, it was known who it was. So management installed cameras everywhere. As far as I know, the laptop swiper is still there. I don’t know if the cameras stopped him or not, since I’m no longer there. Another example: someone was spending hours on the internet watching sports. Rather than disciplining him, an internet blocking application was installed for everyone.

      They would go to all sorts of lengths to avoid dealing with specific people who were causing problems. Or at least, that was the perception that was given.

      1. OP*

        “Or at least, that was the perception that was given.” Yes. I have no idea if my boss is handling these issues directly AND instituting new policies to avoid the issue in the future, or if he’s just instituting new policies as a way to avoid difficult conversations. But to me it often seems like it’s the latter, simply because of the sheer number of new rules and policies that are announced to us pretty much out of the blue. Anyway, this is unrelated to my original question because so far he hasn’t announced any new policies with respect to plagiarism. But in general, he tends to respond to bad employee behavior by creating new rules. We have a lot of rules.

    2. The Toxic Avenger*

      OP – thank you for the additional context. It sounds like the plagiarizer is an overall low performer. In that case, it has to be really annoying to see this person continue to collect a paycheck. All I can say is, I understand. I used to work with someone who did the minimum to get by, and I was always cleaning up her messes when she screwed up. Our manager had “several talks” with her, and told me that “action was being taken” but the only action I saw was my own, as I continued to do her work so projects wouldn’t slide. It drove me bananas. No solutions here, OP, but I’m in your corner.

    3. Aunt Vixen*

      I hope it doesn’t sound critical of me to ask why you took the matter to your boss without speaking to your co-worker about it first? I don’t mean to suggest that everything should or even can always be solved between peers without involving managers–if I saw a co-worker pocketing money out of petty cash, for example, I’d certainly want to let a manager know. But I hope I’d also say something to the co-worker in the moment. (In the petty cash situation, something like “Hey – what are you doing?!” In the plagiarism situation, something like “Doug, you … know we can’t just copy and paste stuff without attribution, right?!”) Again: I wouldn’t speak to the co-worker *instead* of speaking to the manager, but I’m sort of wondering why you spoke to the manager instead of speaking to the co-worker.

      1. OP*

        In general, I would agree with you that it’s better to say something directly to your coworker (as well as to your manager), but in this case I’m not sure I see the value of directly confronting him.

        That said, I actually DID say something to my coworker because I had to rewrite his sections and we were on a tight deadline. So I believe I said something along the lines of, “Hey Wakeen, I’m rewriting section X because I noticed that there are a lot of direct quotes in there without quotation marks or proper attribution.” His response was a kind of sheepish, “Oh…okay.” That was pretty much it.

        In retrospect, I’m not sure if I should have even said that, because (assuming my boss did in fact talk to him) it’s pretty obvious now that I’m the one who reported him and I still have to work with the guy.

        1. Aunt Vixen*

          That’s a fair point. I will continue to ponder in case I ever find myself in a similar situation.

        2. manybellsdown*

          Uggghhh I feel your pain on this, because I have been in similar situations – not for work, but for classes. I’ve said just that to the plagiarizer and gotten nothing but that exact response. As long as they don’t have to do more work, they don’t care, I guess.

      2. Ann O'Nemity*

        In most cases, I agree that talking to the co-worker first is a good rule of thumb.

        But given the context – a writer / researcher plagiarizing whole paragraphs and the OP needing to rewrite those sections under a tight deadline – I think that going straight to the manager was an acceptable move.

        I’m sure my reaction is colored by my academic background and my extreme aversion to plagiarism. For a professional writer / research to commit that kind of plagiarism is just not okay. In my current job, it would probably result in a termination.

  14. AnotherHRPro*

    The best practice would be to let the person who raises an issue know that it has been addressed or resolved. You don’t need to let them know how, but it is ideal to inform them that it has been handled. I understand that this is not common place but when you become aware of a situation and raise it, as organizations encourage employees to do, it is nice to “close it out” for all involved. You really don’t want the situation to linger on and have someone who tried to do the right thing sit their and wonder if it mattered.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      Yes! Because there is so much bad management out there, please give us SOME indication that this isn’t just more of the same. Discipline is a way to let employees know that bad behavior matters. Communicate with us and let us know that good behavior matters.

  15. Michele*

    It doesn’t surprise me that you wouldn’t know what, if any, actions were taken. Managers have doors that close for a reason. Where I work, all discipline, even including firing, is handled very discreetly. If the person on the receiving end wants to vent and share that information, that is the only way it gets out.

  16. HR Manager*

    I think response would also be measured against the potential impact of this issue. I’m not minimizing the problem of plagiarizing, but if someone plagiarizes an idea of written word for an internal only presentation or summary that has very little bearing on the company’s business or is not visible to a customer, it may be handled differently. Something as flagrant as plagiarizing something that will be “published” as the company’s work when it clearly is not, and is visible for clients who are engaged with said company for their thought leadership is reprehensible and may warrant a more “public” acknowledgment.

    As to whether disciplinary actions should be more publicly visible — I do agree that for very obvious issues, a statement to the effect of it’s being addressed should suffice. The purpose of most disciplinary or performance related issues is a chance for the employee to correct the mistake and demonstrate they can fix it, and it’s very hard to do that with the judgment of the team and co-worker always being felt by the transgressing employee. This doesn’t necessarily apply to extreme situations of ethical violations, but most disciplinary situations aren’t of this type, and I think discretion is the only way to get an employee motivated enough to try to fix the problems.

  17. neverjaunty*

    Hey OP, on the subject of keeping your eyes on your own work – do make sure that you document (for yourself) when you told the boss, what you told him, and that you had to rewrite the final product. Print emails and that sort of thing to keep at home. Here’s why: if Plagiarizing Guy does this again, and/or his habits get the company into trouble, you do not want to be splashed with any of the blame, either by your boss or anyone else, or accused of ‘covering up’ because you fixed the finished product.

    1. OP*

      Good point. I do have documentation of everything. I don’t anticipate anything like what you describe, but I suppose no one ever does.

  18. themmases*

    I really disagree with some of the comments that knowing how the plagiarism was dealt with doesn’t affect the OP. If the coworker is ever publicly caught in the future, that reflects on the coworker’s organization and certainly anyone who might have contributed to or edited that work. In my field, that would threaten your career. OP doesn’t need a transcript of the coworker’s meeting with the boss, or to know exactly where the coworker is on the path to firing. But they definitely need and deserve to know that plagiarized work won’t be coming out of their department, and to have some assurance of why that is.

    I also do research and writing for a living, and worked on a team with someone who was caught plagiarizing part of something we intended to publish. My PI agreed to keep working with this person (who was unrepentant, basically) but told me and a coworker to investigate any writing they turned in. It’s very disturbing to have to keep working with someone who may be engaging in misconduct that tarnishes you both, and would put your name on that work if it were ever finished. Luckily I left soon after and this person was a low performer otherwise so I don’t anticipate their project being published without significant rewriting by a smarter, more honest person. But even that isn’t very much assurance when your own career and integrity are implicated. I don’t think an assurance from the boss that the plagiarism will be eliminated is too much to ask.

    1. OP*

      This is what worries me. I don’t want or need to know exactly what disciplinary action was taken, but I would like to know that we have processes in place to make sure this coworker doesn’t plagiarize again. If I’m not working with him on the next project, how will anyone working with him know to go back and double-check his work? Maybe my boss has a plan for this, but I don’t know what it is, and it makes me nervous that my organization could inadvertently publish plagiarized work.

  19. Cassie*

    I had a similar situation – they weren’t research papers but more of a here’s a newsletter of our dept’s accomplishments over the year. I was proofreading one of the articles and googled a phrase to check something and found the exact same article published through another dept in our university. There were actually a couple of other articles like that, and some photos that were uncredited. I pointed it out to my boss, but more along the lines of “these need to be properly credited” and not “coworker tried to plagiarize these”.

    How can you not know that you can’t just lift complete articles or photos and not a) get permission to reprint and b) not provide the credit?

  20. Student*

    I’m going to graduate school right now with a bunch of international students. I was shocked and appalled to find that a large number of them plagiarized (I found out about the plagiarism in my group in a much similar way to the OP.)

    Anyway, I found out (from several sources) that plagiarism isn’t looked at the same way in other countries as it is here in the US. In many places it’s considered okay to represent the work as your own because you did the work to go find the material online. My team member who plagiarized absolutely didn’t do it maliciously and after I explained to her why it’s not okay in the US and how to properly site sources, she hasn’t done it again.

    I’m really glad I went to my team member about this before going to the teacher or administration because she just hadn’t been taught any better and had no malicious intent behind it. Not saying this is the case in this situation but it could be.

  21. Mena*

    “I understand that my boss isn’t obligated to share with me any details of how he chose to discipline my coworker …”

    This right here.

    You did the right thing by taking it to your boss – now you let it go.

  22. denise*

    So plagiarism also ventures into the design world-all those stock websites where you can download predesigned invitations or little illustrations. Some are free, some are paid. I had (still have) a designer working under me that struggles a lot with being a graphic designer on a professional environment in general who would go back and forth between shoddy design and highly technical design in a really wide range of styles….a quick google search showed me that she had been plagiarising (and ultimately also stealing, since they were not free designs) designs for things from all across the internet. When I talked to her, she feigned ignorance. She wasnt fired becaise of her inexperience and “ignorance” and hasnt done it since, but i dont anticipate her being around too much longer. There are lots of issues at play.

Comments are closed.